Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have written a customarily intelligent score for their new musical, “The Glorious Ones,” and Marc Kudisch gives an especially fine performance in the central role. But this musical in commedia dell’arte style never quite engages the audience’s attention, resulting in an admirable but only intermittently amusing evening.
Story, from a novel by Francine Prose, is based on fact. Venetian roisterer Flaminio Scala (Kudisch) forms a group of touring comedians in the 16th century, the different players becoming prototypes for the stock characters of commedia. When their improvisatory brand of comedy begins to lose favor, Flaminio’s protege brings a young woman into the company. Francesco (Jeremy Webb) and the play-writing Isabella (Erin Davie) become lovers, their popularity forcing the aging Flaminio into character roles.
The tone of the piece suddenly changes with the entrance of Isabella, who sings an especially winning song (“The World She Writes”). This is followed in short order by five or six extremely good numbers, illuminating the inner life of the characters and bringing the musical alive. This span doesn’t begin until about 50 minutes into the proceedings, unfortunately, which is way too late to win over most of the customers.
Kudisch, who seems to get better with each role, carries “The Glorious Ones” as the egotistical Flaminio. Davie, the Young Edie of Broadway’s “Grey Gardens,” brightens the stage considerably as Isabella. Natalie Venetia Belcon, who made a memorable Gary Coleman in “Avenue Q,” reveals a strong voice and shapely figure as Columbina. Also effective is Julyana Soelistyo, an Indonesian-born actress who earned a 1998 Tony nomination in her impressive Broadway debut in “Golden Child” but hasn’t been seen hereabouts since.
“The Glorious Ones” might be more to the taste of students of commedia dell’arte, but there’s the heart of the problem. Yes, modern day comedy can be traced directly back to these improvisational troupes that played the Venice-Verona-Padua circuit. But that in itself doesn’t make Harlequin, Columbina and Pantalone relevant to 21st century patrons in search of entertainment.
The low comedy on display here, simply put, is unlikely to set many theatergoers rolling in the aisles.
Director-choreographer Graciela Daniele doesn’t help matters much. Production is simple, in keeping with the commedia tradition, but there are some nice touches (and an impressive stage transformation late in the proceedings) from set designer Dan Ostling and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge. Lincoln Center Theater provides a customarily first-class mounting, this being the sixth Flaherty/Ahrens offering under LCT artistic director Andre Bishop’s tenure.
Selection of source musical can be tricky and treacherous; a musical based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem sounds far more iffy than one from the pen of Dr. Seuss. Even so, this team’s recent musicals — “A Man of No Importance,” “Dessa Rose” and now “The Glorious Ones” — while well-crafted and worthy of admiration, have been self-sabotaged by the choice of material.
Flaherty and Ahrens remain one of the most talented teams of contemporary musical theater dramatists in the field. Let’s hope for a stronger starting point for their next opus.